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Poor rich man - Luke 18:18-30

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 13th February 2000.

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Her father was a living legend in Hollywood - a hell raiser some called him - a heavy drinker and womaniser, for others he was a genius, the maker of film classics such as The African Queen and Treasure of Sierra Madre. Not surprisingly his daughter lived under the shadow of her famous father John Huston for most of her life. Her parent’s divorce was very traumatic for her and as soon as she was old enough she embarked upon a 17 year on - and off affair with Jack Nicholson only eventually to forge her own successful career as an actress. She is rich, she is famous. Reflecting on her life and her future in an interview in the Radio Times, this is how Angelica Huston concludes with her interviewer: " I hate to break this news to you, but one is alone all one’s life. You have the comfort of friends or family, which makes life possible, but I’ve always felt alone. You are born alone and will die alone and there’s no one who can tell me otherwise, although I’d be very willing to believe it. The truth is bleak. "

I don’t think Angelica Huston is that unusual in her views. She may be more frank about them than most people - hoping that things might be better but holding a deeper suspicion that they will not. Well this morning we are going to be looking at a young man, who like Ms Huston was rich and famous who came to Jesus hoping to hear that the truth was not bleak, that he could find, as he put it ‘eternal life’. Raised as a Jew he certainly didn’t believe that we were born alone, and he definitely hoped we would not die alone, but could he be certain of it? And so he asks the most important question anyone could ever ask: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life? ’

Now will you notice a few things about this man who came to Jesus with this question burning in his mind.

First he comes, it would seem, with the right motive - he came looking for eternal life, v18. Here was a man who seems to have everything. In v23 we are told he has great wealth - so money is no problem, he doesn’t have to anxiously listen out for his lottery numbers, he is already rich. What is more, according to the account on Matthew’s Gospel he is young and a ruler - a leader in the synagogue. Now you don’t get to be one of the top men in the religious establishment unless you have something about you - he must have been very good. This fellow was on the fast track, he was going places, he had a bright future ahead of him. And yet, and yet, for all of these things deep down he had a longing, a hunger which none of these things could fill. And it was on the basis of that felt need - the need as he put it for eternal life, quality spiritual life, life which went beyond this one with all its passing glitz and glamour, that he came to Jesus.

Secondly, he has the right attitude. There is an urgency about it all. Did you notice how he came straight to the point: ‘Good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life? ’, no polite preliminaries of the ‘how are you, what a nice day variety’ - just a desperate question. Mark in his gospel tells us that the man came to Jesus running, pushing his way through the crowds, almost grabbing Jesus by his coat before he moves on, so important is it that he gets this one sorted out. There was no need to twist this man’s arm to get him to come to hear about Jesus, you couldn’t stop him - if anyone had the right attitude it was this man.

Furthermore, he came to the right person. You see, the young ruler hadn’t just come to an evangelist, he had come directly to the source of eternal life itself - Jesus. Now while there is no suggestion that he fully recognised Jesus exactly for who he was - the Son of God - there is every indication that he saw in Jesus something more than a country preacher and brilliant communicator. We read that he called Jesus ‘good teacher’, a word which means someone of outstanding character, a person who simply radiates basic goodness from the very centre of their being. So if anyone knew the answer to his quest of finding eternal life, than surely it would be Jesus?.

And finally he asks the right question: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life? ’What are the questions which occupy us? Which school will my children go to? Where shall we go for our holiday? Which new kitchen unit shall we by? Shall I get a new car? Questions we might all have to ask. But just supposing that the sneaking suspicion is true that we were made for eternity, that life is more than food, sex, telly and work. That just as an aching empty stomach indicates we are creatures made for food, so the spiritual ache inside indicates we were made for God. Then this is the biggest question of all isn’t it? What must I do to inherit eternal life? How can I get in touch with the God who made me and keep in touch with him for ever?

And it is at this point the story takes a most unusual turn, because what Jesus says to this young man seems so odd - v 20 ‘You know the commandments, here they are, just the last five - don’t commit adultery, don’t murder anyone, don't steal, don’t commit perjury, honour your parents’ keep those and you will be fine. And totally unabashed he replies that he has, since he was a young boy - there are no flies on this fellow. And you may well be here this morning and are able to say the same. I am a good person, I believe in God, I try to be a good husband or wife, I have never murdered anybody, I certainly don’t go around stealing. All in all I have kept my nose clean. But surely it can’t be as simple as that or can it?

He seemed to have everything didn’t he? - youth, good looks, religion, money - he had it all. And yet he had nothing, because he didn’t have eternal life. Tell me, in one billion years in heaven or hell, what will that career you fought so hard for and sacrificed so much for, look like? In 2 billion years time in heaven or hell what will that overtime which took you away from your church and family appear? In 3 billion years time in heaven or hell, what will that new car matter? In other words how do the things which now seem so much to us measure up in the light of eternity? That is what we are talking about.

So what was lacking in this man’s life and may well be lacking in ours such that we forfeit eternal life? Jesus turns and looks this young man straight in the eye and says: Well, there is one more thing which you lack: sell everything you have, give it to those less well off and you will have treasure in heaven, then come and follow me. ’ - v22. I tell you, had you plunged a red hot steel knife into his stomach, the effect could not have been more devastating. ‘When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. ’Then he walked away from the only hope he had of receiving eternal life. Doesn’t your heart break? - and yet it is a story which is repeated daily in the lives of countless thousands.

Now let us understand that Jesus is not saying : ‘If only you could add generosity to your list of moral efforts then at last you will have gathered enough credit in the bank of heaven to ensure a free and easy passage through the gates of St Peter. ’Now some people do interpret Christianity like that. They think of eternal life as some sort of commodity which can be purchased by good works, works of charity especially. But if you read the NT carefully you will discover that is the very opposite of what Jesus is getting at as we shall see. The key verb in v 22 is not’ sell’ or ‘even’ give, but ‘follow’. Jesus did not demand of every person he talked to that they abandon their property, but he did demand and still does demand that they follow him - its called discipleship. The purpose of this man’s selling and giving was to free him up from all his entanglements so that he could follow Jesus without any hindrance. For eternal life is nothing more nor less than having a living, loving relationship with Jesus. Jesus is eternal life. He is eternal life incarnate says the Bible. Jesus defines eternal life in terms of a relationship with him; ’This is eternal life’ he says at one point. ’that they may know thee Father and the one you have sent’. So we find eternal life not by coming to Jesus as a customer to buy but coming as a disciple to follow. The one thing this man lacked was Jesus. He had everything else, as you might well have, but everything else isn’t enough. Jesus came into this world 2000 years ago to bring eternal life to men and women who found that trying to obey the moral law of God couldn’t get them into heaven. People who have had morality and religion up to their ears and still know nothing of the peace and security that Jesus alone brings. Follow me he says. But the man refused.

Have you ever wondered why? Well, I think we can tease out a number of hindrances that were in that man’s mind and may well be in your mind this morning.

First there was an inadequate view of who Jesus was. He certainly had great respect for him as we saw, he called him ‘good teacher’. But of course respect for a person is not enough for us to give up everything for them is it? If we are going to follow Jesus it requires more than mere admiration for him. It requires total devotion, it means that he must be the most important person in the world to me. That is what Jesus is trying to help the man see when he gently chides him in v 19 when he says ‘Why do you call me good, no one is good but God. ’He wanted him to see that calling him ‘teacher’ was not a sufficient title, not if he really believed him to be as ‘good’ as God. Its is as if Jesus is saying, ’If you really knew how good I am then you would not hesitate to follow me, what else should hold a man back from following his maker? When you are following me you are following God. So here is the first test to see whether or not you really are a Christian. The question is not ‘Do you believe in God’ but are you following Jesus? May I ask, what place he occupies in your thoughts, when you are at work or at home. Does he means so much to you that you want to see you children know him too. Or is he someone you merely admire or is fine for the wife and kids, but to be frank he is not for you. If so, then you too like this man are on the wrong side of eternal life and lack this one thing.

The second hindrance is that he was deluded about his own moral state. Did you notice how he framed his question? ’Good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life. ’In other words like many pious Jews in Jesus day and many respectable people today, this fellow was under the monumental delusion that eternal life depended upon the moral quality of his behaviour - as if heaven was for good people.. He thought he could get there on his own, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. But do we honestly think that we could ever come up to God’s standards? The only one person who has ever got there on merit and that is Jesus. The rest of us fail abysmally. That is why Jesus points to God’s law, all to do with loving our neighbour. He wasn’t trying to confirm this young man in his delusion that he could buy his ticket to heaven by being good, he was trying to awaken in him, and us, some sense of conviction of sin, that we are morally dirty, quite unfit for God’s presence. The response of the young man is the response of so many of us: ’Oh, I’ve done all that’. He hadn’t realised how impossible it is to love your neighbour like yourself. He thought he had done it. So Jesus exposes his self - righteousness for the religious humbug it really was. ’Do you really keep those five commandments all to do with neighbour love? Then sell what you have and give it to the poor. How can you pride yourself in loving when the poor beg from you and you bathe in your luxury? You really want to love the Lord your God with everything like the law of Moses says? Then give up your idolatry that has gripped your greedy heart, which occupies your time and leisure - what you really live for. At the end of the day he is more concerned with treasure on earth than treasure in heaven. Jesus is not impressed by our talk, our religious platitudes about seeking the spiritual dimension in life, or the golden rule - he is interested in action, follow me.

And what he says to this young man he says to us. We dare not come into church this morning boasting of our achievements. Maybe we have done a lot but we have not done enough. For while pride and self still rule in our lives wearing their tinsel crowns, while we delude ourselves that we can earn our ticket to heaven on our own by being good, we will never come to Jesus. We will never feel our need of him, that we are spiritually and morally destitute, hopelessly in the moral red with God facing the awful possibility of an eternity without him.

But the major reason he turned away is that he couldn’t face the cost - the cost of discipleship, being a real Christian, rather than one in name only. ‘He went away sad’, we are told because he had great wealth. ’All sorts of things can keep us away from Jesus you know. It might well be money. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft expressed this with amazing candour: ‘Just in terms of allocation of time resources,’ he said ‘religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on Sunday morning. ’It might be other relationships - ’I had better not take this Christianity lark too seriously, what would my wife think, or my parents, or my friends? ’It might be concern for image - it simply isn’t ‘cool’ to be a Christian these days - better give Jesus a wide birth. But the root problem of all of these things is the problem of pride, which is sin, the pride which says ‘My well being matters more than anything else. I decide and call the shots, not God. ’And it is that rebellion against our Maker, our rightful loving ruler, which ensures our separation from him and will eventually destroy us. But what Jesus says in effect here, is that unless you are willing to have me as your Lord, number one in your life, do not dare call me your Saviour.

So is there no hope? Well, Jesus says yes there is in fact - v 27 ‘With God nothing is impossible. ’You see, eternal life is not a matter of us doing anything at all, unless you call opening an empty hand to receive a gift as doing something. God is the one who takes the initiative, who does all the doing. He takes the initiative through the other rich young ruler in this story - his Son Jesus, who has kept all the commandments and who loved us so much that he gave up all the wealth of heaven only to die on a cross to bear away the punishment we deserve, and to rise from the dead to show that the gates are open wide so any who dare follow him will enter. God does the impossible by sending his Holy Spirit to enable us to follow Jesus and who joins us to his new family, the church where we can know his love and kindness through other Christians - so as he says to Peter, we receive many times back in this age whatever we have had to give up for him, and in the age to come - eternal life.

So let me ask: Do you lack this one thing - Jesus? You may have been coming to St Johns for years and still lack this one thing because you are trusting in the wrong things - your association with the church, your goodness. If so, then I can offer you no hope at all after death. You may have very little to do with church, but you still would want to see yourself as a good person - that too is misplaced trust. There is only one thing we all need and that is from the heart to come to Jesus Christ and admit our guilt, confess our trust that he alone can open the gates of heaven to let us in because he bore our sins away on that cross. There is no other way, countless millions have tried this and found it to be true. Why not try it for yourself this morning as we pray?


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